Senseless Vandalism Damages Canadian Observatory

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s observatory in Hamilton, Ontario was vandalized earlier this month, with at least $100,000 in damage to equipment and facilities.

Security video shows two people using a truck to repeatedly ram into two buildings – the observatory and a meeting center — knocking down exterior walls on both buildings and damaging telescopes and other equipment inside. Nothing was stolen, but damaged for no apparent reason.

“It appears to be a failed robbery turned utter vandalism,” said the group’s president Andy Blanchard. “It looked like they wanted to destroy everything.”

Blanchard told Universe Today that another member of the group discovered the damage on July 4, 2023 when he went out to the center to do some maintenance. He first saw that a heavy-duty entrance gate had been ripped out of the ground, but that was only the start.

“It was shocking and upsetting and it took us about 3-4 hours to manage to get into the clubhouse building to access to security video,” Blanchard said “On that video we saw they backed their truck into the observatory wall three times to knock it down, and they spent 5 minutes in the building, doing further damage to our equipment, such as throwing eyepieces to the floor. Then they used their truck to knock down the walls on our meeting and warming center, but the wall collapsed in a way that they couldn’t enter the building.”

Damage to the Hamilton Observatory’s meeting center after vandalism on July 3, 2023. Image courtesy Victor Abraham/ Hamilton Centre.

The police say the two perpetrators are known and are being sought in connection with this and several other break-ins and acts of vandalism in the area in southern Ontario.

The Hamilton Centre of the RASC is one of 28 non-profit centers across Canada, powered by over 140 astronomy enthusiast members. The Hamilton group was originally founded 1901, and is one of the longest standing amateur astronomy organizations in Canada.

When the wall on the observatory was knocked down, it crushed a CGE Pro mount from Celestron, hurling the mounted telescope, worth at least $11,000 USD, across the room. In total, the astronomical equipment damaged is valued at more than $40,000 USD.

Blanchard said that’s a substantial amount for a group of volunteers that are doing a public service by sharing the wonders of the night sky with their community.  

The Hamilton Observatory and meeting center before the damage. Image courtesy Victor Abraham/ Hamilton Centre.

“It was basically several decades worth of collection and work,” Blanchard said. “The biggest problem is that when the wall came down, the lime dust from the concrete walls settled on all the astronomical surfaces, and lime is very caustic to the expensive coatings on the eyepieces and optics. All have to be sent away for repair.”

The group has started a GoFundMe page, and club member Jeff Parsons said their story seems to have struck a cord, “evidenced by the growing outpouring of support and generosity from not just the local community but the broad astronomy community.”

Blanchard said they’ve been overjoyed with the support they’ve received, with both cash donations, as well as of offers for help with reconstruction of their buildings.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to get such support from around the world,” Blanchard said. “Many times, you don’t realize you are part of a community until that community comes together for support. We are very proud of our community and all the people who are stepping up and saying they want to help.”

But the group has also received offers of substantial donations, such as an observatory and other astronomical equipment. Additionally, a recognized member of the Canadian astronomy community offered to donate a 36″ telescope, valued at about $85,000.

“This is such a rare, extraordinary opportunity, and we are overwhelmed,” Blanchard said. “To look through this telescope, you need to climb a 12-foot ladder. Plus, with the size of this telescope, you can see colors in space, where typically when you look through a regular telescope, everything is in shades of grey. I’m sure we will have line-ups around the block to look through this telescope.”

They are using the GoFundMe to purchase a sea-can shipping container to hold all the equipment that survived the break in while their buildings are repaired or rebuilt. The group is still awaiting word on how much their insurance will cover.

The Hamilton group regularly holds public viewing events and they didn’t let the vandalism stop them from holding their usual weekly observing events.

“We decided we weren’t going to let this tragedy stop us and we’ve had more people than ever come out to look through our members’ telescopes,” Blanchard said. “The community has come together in ways we never would have dreamed possible.”

For more information, see the group’s GoFundMe page and the group’s website.